Jesse Bransford dares to go where image-conscious artists fear to tread. Other young artists, whose work also incorporates fractured architectural renderings, scenes from outer space, and fantastic creatures, share the space-age aesthetic evident in Bransford’s eight large drawings and wall mural. However, this artist’s attraction to systems of knowledge from around the world and personal fascination with the heavy-metal band Blue Öyster Cult (BÖC) compel him to investigate beyond the safety zone of fashionable subjects.
By incorporating various symbols from astronomy, world mythology, and science fiction in his drawings, the artist has developed a unique vocabulary. In one piece, a huge-eyed extraterrestrial stands on top of a funnel projecting the symbol of Heaven’s Gate, the cult whose members organized a mass suicide in California in 1997. Nearby are alien ships, planets, winged beasts, and a giant scarab. In another drawing, a man wearing a top hat and long beard stands in front of a celestial map as he operates an enormous telescope. To his right stands a creature that is half man, half fish, beyond which appears a question-mark shape associated with BÖC. A giant phallus, a man on a premodern flying machine, and clusters of planets recur in several drawings.
As long as human beings persist in asking fundamental questions—“Who are we? What are we doing here?”—science , technology, and mythology will continue to provide inadequate answers. In the meantime, Bransford’s accumulated findings make for some interesting imagery. Just as the artist is attracted to BÖC’s homemade cosmology for its “transhistorical and nonlinear” characteristics, he plunges into alchemical and astrological texts for answers to life’s mysteries. In addition to the zodiacal diagrams, random symbols, and space-age machinery, Bransford reproduces mutated creatures that are reminiscent of the twisted imagination of Hieronymus Bosch or the satirical engravings of Pieter Bruegel. Bransford’s references to iconographic systems from the past, brought into the twenty-first century and combined with symbols of mystical knowledge, produce sometimes apocalyptic and usually fantastical results. The Dungeons and Dragons edge that pops up now and again, as well as the artist’s allusions to heavy-metal imagery, will be like candy to some, poison to others. But when Bransford’s worlds collide, they produce a powerful commentary on the search for meaning in life.
Is Christine Y. Kim stuck in the shadows, or does she have it made in the shade? Shortly before Kim started her current job as Assistant Curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem, curatorial heavyweights Lowry Sims and Thelma Golden moved into the respective roles of Director and Deputy Director/Chief Curator, creating a media fuss and much art world speculation on the institution’s new identity. Golden’s star power attracts a steady stream of media attention and recently made her the subject of a lengthy profile in The New Yorker.
So how is a young curator able to find her own voice in a small museum with two big personalities? Smiling out from the pages of The New York Times ‘Sunday Styles’ photographs last month, Kim didn’t seem to be having much of a problem. The newspaper photos featured the opening of the Museum’s winter exhibitions, the crowning jewel of which is ‘Africaine’, a show of work by four female artists from Africa curated by Kim. At the tender age of 30, she has navigated the competitive world of young curators, to snag a job in one of New York’s most exciting museums, as well as planning independent shows at Artists Space, Gale Gates, and other venues.
‘Africaine’ is the feminine form of ‘African’ in French, and while only one of the featured artists is actually from a country formerly colonized by the French, the title evokes a post-colonial discourse appropriate to the artwork. Kim laughed when I asked about the show’s title, reflecting on someone’s suggestion that ‘Africaine’ might be a new kind of designer drug. Turning serious, Kim explained, “I prefer not to give shows titles that directly locate demographics, race and identity, like ‘Four African Women’, or ‘Nine Korean or Asian-American Artists.’ I like to put the work and the concept of the exhibition before the rest.”
All four artists in ‘Africaine’ grapple with the female form, creating collages or photographs that question how the bodies of African women have been viewed. Twenty-four framed collages of individual women by Wangechi Mutu recall Hannah Hoch’s sexually charged, mixed race collages from the 1920s, while Fatimah Tuggar presents domestic scenes and mixed race couples. Tracey Rose, from South Africa, offers four large photographs featuring herself in the varying roles from porn star Ciccolina to ‘Venus Baartman’ crouching nude in the bush, near the spot where the oldest human remains have been found. Fellow South African Candice Breitz’s images of semi-nude women in tribal dress from 1996 are taken from postcards and transformed by covering the women’s skin with white-out.
Like many people who have a point to make, Kim has a catchphrase. Whether she is referring to Tracey Rose’s provocative photos or the violence of Breitz whiting out black bodies, Kim values ‘pushing the envelope.’ She applies the same phrase to the artists of ‘Purloined,’ the show which opened the ’01-’02 season at Artists Space. All of the participating artists dealt with thievery as a practice or a theme and, as Kim explained, focused on “…challenging the conventions in a community, culture or society.
” Starting with Sophie Calle’s exploits as a nosy chambermaid, the show moved on to look at Polaroids by Lilah Freedland, taken while breaking into the houses and apartments of strangers, and stolen and tagged items presented by Lisa Levy. Other artists, like Nikki Lee and Nancy Hwang, investigated what it means to assume another’s identity. “One of the things that was special about the show for me…” said Artists Space director, Barbara Hunt, “…was Nancy Hwang’s performance where she undertook manicures…You entered through… semi-transparent curtains and sat at table with a sandblasted glass screen, so you couldn’t see the person performing the manicure. She talks about the way in which people really did confess to her and were telling her their secrets five minutes into the manicure.”
As Kim starts to lessen the focus on independent curating and concentrates on her role at the Studio Museum, no doubt she’ll develop her talent for pulling together artists from a variety of backgrounds into tightly themed shows. She is equally interested in artists from the East and West coasts, and says that in her exhibitions, “…most of the time, more than half of the artists are women, more than half are artists of color, but it’s never really mentioned. It’s more about artists working in a certain vein or addressing a pertinent process or idea…” Referring to ‘Africaine’, curator and critic Franklin Sirmans said, “Christine Kim’s approach of mixing up the very local and the global in that show is trademark for her energy in looking everywhere and being able to make the meaningful connections among artists that a lot of people just don’t see.”
Combining the local and global is very Christine Kim. For her next show, tentatively titled ‘Black Belt: Third Arena,’ the curator is planning to explore the conjunction of African-American and Asian-American culture through Kung Fu culture. She points to the popularity of martial arts and eastern spirituality in the African-American communities and is mapping how this has had a significant impact on art by many African-American artists. She is careful to say, “I don’t want to create a narrative that connects Blacks and Asians. But for a generation of people of color strongly influenced by popular culture and urban culture of the seventies and eighties, there was an emergence of another possibility beyond the dichotomies of Black and White from the decade that preceded. There was a transcendent space that mapped spirituality, rebellion, entertainment…and a realization that there were other ‘Americans/Non-Americans’ who perhaps didn’t have exactly the same kind of struggles but experienced social and national alienation whether in the workplace, academic sphere, Hollywood, in sports, or who knows.”
Over the past two years, in addition to working on her own shows, Kim’s assistance to Thelma Golden has provided her with new working strategies. Like others in the field, she uses the word mentor to describe her older colleague, saying “I thought I knew what a mentor was until I met her…It’s not about instruction, it’s about example and about energy.” Kim even admits that her choice of wall color for ‘Africaine’, chartreuse not an earthy ‘African’ color, owes something to Golden.
Far from languishing in the wake of her colleagues, Kim is locating herself as a curator, a second-generation, Korean woman working in Harlem, and a West coaster educated and living on the East Coast. Late one afternoon in February, Kim and I were the last ones left in the museum galleries, when suddenly the lights were turned out. Unfazed, Kim continued talking for another 20 minutes in the dark, enthusing about her ideas for shows and plans as a curator. If the energy of her personality continues to translate onto the walls of her shows, the stars will continue to shine in Harlem.
Melissa Chiu is a curator’s curator. Headhunted from her native Australia by the Asia Society and Museum, the thirtysomething Chiu has just become the first museum curator of contemporary Asian art in the United States. Over the past ten years, she not only founded a non-profit gallery space in Sydney but also curated over twenty exhibitions at other alternative gallery spaces in Australia. Chiu will even admit to loving the art of curating as much as the visual arts themselves.
“I think it’s generational,” she explained. “When I was at university…I was trying to find literature on curatorial practice, and there was not a lot in the early 90s…I was quite curious about this idea of curatorial practice being as much a practice as artistic practice.” One of Chiu’s early exhibitions, ‘Anthology: Six Perspectives on Curatorship’ positioned six curators for a period of a week each in the gallery space. By curating an exhibition of both curatorial practice and artwork, Chiu aimed to drag usually hidden organizational processes under the gallery floodlights. Since then, whether she is focusing on Australian, Asian or multi-ethnic artists, there is an underlying sensitivity to who has put the show together and why.
Chiu came on board at the Asia Society and Museum in September, a few months before the organization reopened in its renovated space. She has inherited the Museum’s ambitious commitment to contemporary art, evidenced most recently by the long-term installations commissioned from a number of internationally known Asian contemporary artists. On the opening day, Chiu led a panel discussion, during which Heri Dono from Indonesia introduced his flying cocoons, Vong Phaophanit explained how living in France and now England for much of his adult life influenced his neon and beeswax sculpture, and Indian artist Nilma Sheikh discussed her long scrolls, which hang from the third floor down to the lobby on the open staircase. Rounding out the new commissions is work by Yong Soon Min from South Korea, Navin Rwanchaikul from Thailand, Shahzia Sikander of Pakistan and New York, Sarah Sze from Boston and Xu Bing and Xu Guodong, both from China.
The new curator will finally come into her own with two shows planned for September. First, the Asia Society will host ‘The Native Born: Objects and Images from Ramingining, Arnhemland,’ a traveling exhibition of Aboriginal art curated by Djon Mundine, a world expert on Aboriginal art. Fusing the traditional and contemporary is the m.o. at the Asia Society, and at the same time as the Aboriginal art show, Chiu will curate her own show of porcelain busts by Chinese artist Ah Xian. Ah, one of the many Chinese artists who moved to Sydney after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, recently won Australia’s National Sculpture Prize, and although his work has been exhibited widely in Asia, this will be his first show in New York. Working with master potters and painters in the Jingdezhen, China, Ah uses the uniquely Western art form of the portrait bust and makes a number of Eastern adaptations. The sculptures are made of porcelain, depict Asian likenesses, and are painted in traditional Chinese designs.
Like Ah Xian, Chiu works at the intersection of cultures. And like the Asia Society’s combination of artists from eight different countries in its recent commissions, she will have to juggle the personal and national concerns of artists from around the world. Born in Australia to a Chinese father and Australian mother, Chiu has first hand experience of living simultaneously in two cultures, an experience with relevance for her professional life. Before leaving Sydney for New York, she was the founding director of the Asia-Australia Arts Centre, a non-profit art exhibition space established to support the work of Asian contemporary and Asian-Australian artists. “We had an interesting curatorial premise to provide these artists with a working environment that wasn’t exclusively Asian,” Chiu explained. “We wanted to create a broader context and perspective of Asian art and culture that wasn’t exclusive or ghettoizing.”
With a strong background in Asian-Australian art, and the Asian and Australian art scene, why did Chiu choose to give it all up and move to New York? “The idea of curating significant exhibitions of contemporary Asian art was a real lure for me,” said Chiu. “Australia for the last decade really focused itself on the Asia Pacific region and becoming part of that, so there are lots of really significant things that have been done but which aren’t known elsewhere. So there is the idea of engaging with a broader audience.” And if traveling to the other side of the world to start a new job doesn’t keep her busy enough, Chiu is also finishing a PhD on contemporary Chinese artists. The focus is on the diasporic communities in Sydney, New York and Paris, particularly how the artists’ work has been affected by the change in context.
It seems fitting that Chiu would eventually be employed by the US institution that presented the influential 1994 show ‘Asia/America,’ of work by ex-pat Asian artists living in the US. And one of the most significant shows of contemporary Asian art to date in the US, ‘Inside Out’, was also organized by the Asia Society along with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. This second exhibition of work by Chinese artists took place in 1998-99, after a decade of major shows of Asian art in Europe. At first slow to catch on to the rising interest in contemporary Asian art, the US audience has since embraced several major Chinese and Asian artists. However, Chiu sees an element of following the fashion in this. “When it settles down ultimately, there are probably only three or four artists who get remembered. They are the ones who are still on an international circuit or who have representation from major galleries, like Xu Bing, Zhang Xiaogang and Zhang Huan…And they have in many ways a higher profile than a lot of the Asian-American artists.”
Back in Australia, in her work at the Arts Centre and in many independent exhibitions, Chiu championed the work of Asian-Australian artists. Time will tell if this ends up translating into an interest in Asian-American artists. Coincidently, before she left for New York, Chiu was developing an exhibition that would include some comparative views of artists from Asian origins in both the U.S. and Australia. But whatever the future holds for contemporary art shows at the Asia Society and Museum, it looks promising. The new commissions, the hosting and organizing of landmark exhibitions, and the creation of Chiu’s position are signs that the commitment to putting contemporary Asian art on the map in New York has grown stronger. With her considerable experience and drive, Chiu seems up for the job.
For ‘Flash Art’ magazine
For the final show of the gallery’s 30th anniversary year, Ronald Feldman F.A. proved its vitality with an exhibition of videos by young artist Rico Gatson. Gatson, a standout in last summer’s popular ‘Freestyle’ group show in Harlem, delves into the Hollywood archives for his material. Using video editing software, he selects films as diverse as ‘Alien’, ‘King Kong’ and ‘Superfly’ and then subjects them to an editing process in which a quarter of the film screen is mirrored, resulting in an intense, kaleidoscopic effect. The show stopper is ‘Departure,’ in which Gatson condenses a scene from the movie ‘Alien’ into an intense series of pans and zooms featuring the determined but petrified protagonist as she exits the exploding ship. Another highlight, “Jungle, Jungle” presents two sequences of human sacrifice made in the 1933 classic film ‘King Kong.’ Gatson maintains a dual focus on the representation of African Americans in film, and on the many faces of fear. Whether the videos feature a giant, raging gorilla, or a gruesome alien, the result is a mini-lexicon of terror that forces viewers to confront their own fears – a task which is never more relevant than now.
The story begins in the remote mountains of north Georgia. Four buddies from the city are canoeing down a river on a weekend trip when their back-to-nature bonding experience suddenly turns into a nightmare. Out of the blue, a couple of backwoodsmen hold two of the party at gunpoint and rape one of them. This is both the pivotal scene in the 1972 film ‘Deliverance’ and the inspiration for ‘Here Piggy, Piggy,’ a new sculpture by Gary Simmons. ‘Here, Piggy, Piggy’ is an all white, fiberglass replica of the two hillbillies but with a twist. Their overalls, grimy caps and appalling dental hygiene are the same, but they have been transformed into bobbleheads, with giant rotating heads and bodies shrunken to the size of a child’s.
Beautiful, haunting, poetic…These are some of the words that come to mind when looking at Simmons’ erasure drawings, which are the signature works he has created for over a decade. The artist makes them by drawing his subjects in white chalk on chalkboards or slate colored backgrounds, and then partially erasing the drawings, leaving incomplete figures and smeared traces of white chalk. On first viewing, the new sculpture, modeled on collectibles with nodding heads, seems to be a dramatic departure from the serious sensibilities of the artist’s earlier work. But on further consideration, the differences are not as great as they first seemed. In fact, the new work continues Simmons’ tradition of embarking on new projects while maintaining continuity with a steady series of erasure drawings. The drawings and the sculptural, photographic or video projects are symbiotic, mutually beneficial to each other by their elaboration on themes of memory, history and the presentation of cultural difference in pop culture.
In the thirteen years since Simmons had his first solo show, he has moved from producing racially charged drawings, sculpture and installations to creating enigmatic wall drawings on a huge scale, accompanied by drawings on paper, linen and chalkboards. Simmons came of age in the late 80s and early 90s when multiculturalism was the art world buzzword and his child-sized Klu Klux Klan outfits, for example, were in keeping with the times. But by the mid-‘90s, his work experienced a shift that was emphasized in the artist’s first large-scale museum exhibition curated by Thelma Golden of The Studio Museum in Harlem (SMH). The catalogued show began in 2001 in Chicago, stopped at Santa Fe and ended this month at the SMH. Nearly thirty drawings, sculptures, photographs and videos from the past seven years were included, along with a major new sculpture (‘Here, Piggy, Piggy’) and a large site-specific wall drawing.
When his early drawings of popular cartoons that stereotyped African-Americans were first exhibited in Europe, Simmons soon discovered that much of his audience considered the work part of a uniquely American situation. Partly in response to this reaction, Simmons gradually changed the subject matter and style of his work in an attempt to address more universal issues. He explains that, “I wanted to open up the dialogue so it wasn’t as isolated to the African American experience. [I included] images of sites that we all interact with or come into contact with so that [in terms of] access to the work and the issues around the work, each person could import their own experience.”* Meanwhile, back in New York, Simmons’ other projects were also being perceived as specific to his experiences as a young African-American. Writing for the New York Times, critic Holland Cotter wrote that Simmons “…brings the language of black hip-hop into an art world that still doesn’t know what to do with it.” Reviewing the same show for Artforum, Jan Avgikos turned Cotter’s observation around to propose that the artist “…emphasizes the ‘outsider’ position of the institution in relation to Pop art…”
Faced with being pigeonholed as an artist whose work related only to a particular time and place, Simmons altered his style around the mid-90s. That change was the starting point of the museum survey. With the exception of ‘Flute Player,’ a drawing from 1995 in which a cartoon figure with a bone on his or her head plays the flute, the focus of the exhibition was entirely on work with no obvious racial or political content. There were drawings of staircases leading into the unknown, of city apartment buildings and shacks in the countryside, of roller coasters, pine trees and stars, but not a stereotyped cartoon drawing, pointed white hood or noose to be seen. Did Golden and Simmons team up to rewrite his history, editing out the artwork which links him to the multicultural art discourse which disappeared from view in the mid-90s?
‘Lost Ones,’ a site-specific drawing executed on an entire 40-foot long wall of the largest gallery helps answer this question. Near the center of a vast, slate colored background, two enigmatic bell-like shapes hang at angles to each other. Each has been partially erased by hand, and the clearly visible finger marks moving out towards the far wall create the impression that they are moving quickly towards each other. In fact, the shapes are bird cages, and the ‘Lost Ones’ the two birds that have flown away. The cages hint at confinement, emancipation and finally the violent crash of the mechanisms that held the birds captive. They also refer back to an installation from 1990, ‘Pollywanna’ in which Simmons placed a live, caged parrot in front of a drawing of two crows from the Dumbo cartoon. Observing the bird led the artist to experiment with an erasure technique. He explains that “…as you looked at the bird, it almost left trails in the wake of the movement of the wings…you see ghost images of the wings moving.” These chains of association run through all of Simmons work and are what link the bobbleheads to the birdcages.
In their own ways, ‘Lost Ones’ and ‘Here, Piggy, Piggy’ deal with power relations and the loss of self-governance. ‘Lost Ones’ does so allegorically, while ‘Piggy’ references violence from a popular film seen and remembered by a generation. At the beginning of the movie, the four adventurers make contact with two families living in extreme poverty and badly affected by inbreeding. These scenes set up a conflict between the city men and their country counterparts, between civilized and wildness, a dichotomy that is often premised by racial difference. In this case, both parties are white, but Simmons points out that “…the fears and stereotypes are all right there and inherent within the film. It’s about the fear of others.” The artist’s interest in the cultural ‘other’ led him to make work that investigates the culture of the southern U.S. As well as being the site of hundreds of years of racial violence, Simmons says of the South, “I think there is a lot of hidden imagery, language and culture that effects us day to day that is literally ghosted.” All of the artist’s erasure drawings summon a ghostly presence that hints at hidden histories. In fact, this accounts for the color of ‘Piggy’ which has been painted all white to, “…almost disappear. They mirror the spirit of the drawings in that way; you’re dealing with something that is recognizable to a point. Like the way your memory works, the edges are sanded down…”
Simmons’ erasure is neither a consequence of a particular working method, nor an aesthetic device. Instead, it has political overtones that are reinforced by the fact that no humans ever appear in the drawings. Some of the best pieces in the exhibition are from a 1996 series of roller coaster drawings titled ‘Ghoster.’ Sections of the coaster’s support structure are rendered as jagged beams, ending in spikes that communicate a menace beyond the scariness of the ride. As in ‘Piggy,’ the thrill seekers are in for more than they bargained, as they lose control in the presence of the, in this case supernatural, ‘other.’ In a major project from 2001, Simmons created a ‘haunted house’ by transforming the walls of an abandoned house in rural New Mexico. The dilapidated structure was not restored, nor were plans made to preserve the wall drawings. The partially erased drawings, their stories obscured by the form they take, mirror a ghost’s fleeting presence as they disappear over time.
Simmons also awakens his audience to the existence of the cultural ‘other’ by making erasure drawings of text that relates to the particular series on which he is working. In a series about drinking, Southern terms like ‘Moonshine’ or ‘Ruckus Juice’ appear in paintings with the same names. Drawings of wishing wells and stars are accompanied by different versions of the words ‘I wish,’ and his current series involves slang and words that refer to pot smoking. By abstracting terms that won’t be found in the dictionary, Simmons focuses attention on the way language is adapted by individuals and communities. The way the words are blurred mimics the way that meaning is obscured for someone from outside the community. For instance, if a viewer isn’t familiar with the reference in Simmons’ painting to Lauryn Hill’s song ‘Lost Ones,’ a shade of meaning is hidden. Simmons compares his work with a DJ’s sampling saying, “There will be references that will be picked up and then there are others that won’t be. That’s OK. When I put two images together and recontextualize them, they become something new anyway.” Simmons is careful to say that, “The viewer might question the fact that they’re on the outside, but they won’t feel like an outsider.” But unless the term ‘ruckus juice’ happens to be in the viewer’s common usage, he or she necessarily assumes the role of ‘outsider.’ Whereas Holland Cotter and Jan Avgikos pointed out in 1993 that the work positions the art world and the art institution on the ‘outside’ of art that references African-American culture, the text drawings, which reference slang terms from a variety of communities, unseat the viewer from an authoritative position.
Ironically, we spend much of our lives wishing to be what, who or where we are not. The precursor to ‘Piggy,’ and the artist’s first all white sculpture were replicas of the stills used to illegally manufacture liquor. Coincidently, the protagonists of ‘Deliverance’ first assume that they have aroused their opponents’ anger by stumbling on a whiskey still. In fact, stills symbolize the supposed lawlessness of deeply rural areas, beyond the arm of the law’s reach. At any rate, Simmons’ focus is the potential of these stills to meet the demand for cheap liquor and plenty of it. In an interview in 2001 with Franklin Sirmans (printed in the exhibition catalogue), Simmons explains that these sculptures are “…about a desire to be somewhere else.” In this respect, they relate to a series of drawings of stars, wishing wells and text drawings of the word ‘wish.’ Wishfulness and drunkenness are ways to escape or take a break from reality, to step into another life. In this respect, both also address what it is to imagine, in a sense, being ‘other.’ Like the birds in ‘Lost Ones,’ who have received or taken their freedom, viewers are left with a choice to fear or embrace their desires.
The four outsiders in ‘Deliverance’ ventured into unknown territory and suffered the consequences. The rules to which they were accustomed no longer applied, and they received no mercy at the hands of their armed captors who Simmons preserves in fiberglass. The Ghoster series also alerts viewers to powers beyond their control, because the appearance of the supernatural subverts even the laws of nature. Finally, by isolating words particular to a culture or geographic region, Simmons hints at the way in which otherness is embedded in the English language. The combined effect of this body of work is to reawaken viewers to the complexity of cross-cultural relations by destabilizing their own positions. Viewers will find themselves on one side or the other (or neither) of the distinction between North and South, and no single viewer will be familiar with all of the jargon that inspired the text drawings. Simmons work forces viewers to see themselves rooted in a particular experience, one of many.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from a conversation with the artist on November 19, 2002.